The United States has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, Texas, by Friday – a move described as a “political provocation” by Beijing.
The US State Department said the decision was made “to protect US intellectual property.”
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said it was “scandalous and unwarranted.”
The statements came after unidentified individuals were filmed burning paper in bins in the building’s courtyard.
Tensions have been mounting between the United States and China for some time. President Donald Trump’s administration has clashed with Beijing on several occasions over trade and the coronavirus pandemic, as well as China’s imposition of a controversial new security law in Hong Kong.
Then on Tuesday, the US Department of Justice accused China of sponsoring hackers who targeted laboratories developing Covid-19 vaccines. Two Chinese nationals have been charged with allegedly spying on US research companies and enlisting the help of state agents for other thefts.
Why did the United States say it was closing the consulate?
The US State Department released a statement shortly after Mr. Wang spoke on Wednesday.
“We ordered the closure of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] Consulate General of Houston, to protect US intellectual property and US private information, ”said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
The consulate is one of five in the United States, not including the embassy in Washington DC. It is not known why this one was chosen.
Ms. Ortagus added that the United States “will not tolerate violations of our sovereignty by the PRC and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the unfair trade practices of the PRC, the theft of jobs. Americans and other blatant behavior ”.
Ms. Ortagus also referred to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, under which states “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs” of a host country.
In a separate statement, the State Department accused China of engaging in “massive operations of illegal espionage and influence,” interfering in “domestic politics,” and “coercing our countries. business leaders, threatened the families of Chinese Americans residing in China, etc. .
How did China react to the order?
China called the decision “an unprecedented escalation”, saying it violated international law. Wang went on to say that Washington had “blamed China with stigma and unwarranted attacks.”
He urged the United States to reconsider its decision, saying that if it insisted “on this wrong path, China would respond with firm countermeasures.”
“In reality, in terms of the number of Chinese and American embassies and consulates in the respective countries and the number of diplomatic and consular personnel, the United States has a lot more people working in China,” Wang said.
Chinese state media, the Global Times, has launched a poll on the US consulate to close in response.
Later, the Foreign Office issued a warning to Chinese students in the United States, asking them to “beware” as “American law enforcement has stepped up arbitrary interrogations, harassment, confiscation of effects and detention targeting Chinese international students in the United States. “.
In danger of a spiraling battle
This is clearly a significant development in the diplomatic struggle between Washington and Beijing.
The closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston comes shortly after news broke of a US indictment against two men accused of spying on US vaccine development on behalf of Chinese security services. It is not clear if the two episodes are related. But it’s clear the Trump administration is determined to step up its very public appeal outside of Beijing.
In the midst of a presidential re-election campaign and with the American economy and society battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Trump determined there was a political advantage in playing the China card.
It’s hard to see how Beijing can avoid an equivalent response. The danger now is that of a fierce, spiraling battle, motivated in part by US domestic considerations, which can only exacerbate the complex and developing tensions between the United States and China.
What’s going on at the consulate?
The first signs that something unusual could be happening at the Houston Consulate emerged Tuesday, when people overlooking the building’s courtyard noticed several trash cans on fire.
Images show people tossing what appears to be paper in the bins. We don’t know who they were. People were then filmed pouring water on the bins.
Emergency services were called into the building on Tuesday evening. However, Houston Police said on Twitter that officers “were not allowed to enter the building” but saw smoke.
Mr. Wang did not directly address the fires in the consulate yard, simply saying that it was operating normally.
What is fueling tensions between China and the United States?
There are currently a number of hot spots between Beijing and Washington. Some of the more serious are:
- Coronavirus: President Trump has repeatedly referred to Covid-19, the first cases of which were reported in Wuhan in late 2019, as the “Chinese virus”. He also alleged that it came from a Chinese lab, although his own intelligence officials said it “was not artificial or genetically modified.” In response, Chinese officials suggested that Covid-19 could have originated in the United States, without proof.
- Commerce: Mr Trump has long accused China of unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft, but in Beijing it feels like the United States is trying to curb its rise as a global economic power. The United States and China have been engaged in a direct tariff war since 2018 following the dispute.
- Hong Kong: China’s imposition of a radical new national security law in Hong Kong in June led the United States to revoke preferential economic treatment in the region. Mr. Trump also signed a law to impose penalties on officials who have cracked down on rights. Beijing accused the United States of “gross interference” in its internal affairs, promising that it would react.